The First Baptist Church of Alexandria, Virginia, which has donated millions to the causes of the Southern Baptist Convention and has been involved with the convention since its founding in the 19th century, is bracing for a possible expulsion from the association. That’s because the Women and Children Services Pastor is a woman.

At the SBC’s annual meeting June 11-12 in Indianapolis, representatives will vote on whether the denomination’s constitution should be amended to ban churches with female pastors and not just in the top position. That measure received overwhelming support in a preliminary vote last year.

By some estimates, the proposed ban could affect hundreds of congregations and disproportionately impact predominantly Black churches.

The vote is partly the culmination of events set in motion a few years ago.

That’s when a Virginia pastor contacted SBC officials to claim that First Baptist and four nearby churches were “out of step” with denominational doctrine that says only men can be pastors. The SBC Credentials Committee launched a formal investigation in April.

Southern Baptists disagree on which ministry jobs this doctrine applies to. Some say it is only the senior pastor, while others say a pastor is anyone who preaches and exercises spiritual authority.

And in a Baptist tradition that prizes the autonomy of local churches, critics say the convention should not enshrine a constitutional rule based on one interpretation of the nonbinding doctrinal statement.

By some estimates, women serve in pastoral roles in hundreds of SBC-affiliated churches, a fraction of the nearly 47,000 within the denomination.

But critics say the amendment would amount to a further reduction in the numbers and mentality of the country’s largest Protestant denomination, which has moved steadily to the right in recent decades. They also wonder if the SBC has better things to do.

SBC membership has fallen below 13 million, the lowest level in nearly half a century. Baptism rates have been declining over the long term.

If the amendment is adopted, it would not lead to an immediate purge. But it could keep denomination leaders busy investigating and expelling churches for years.

Many predominantly black churches have men as lead pastors, but award pastor titles to women in other areas, such as worship and children’s ministry.

The controversy complicates the predominantly white denomination’s already shaky efforts to diversify and overcome the legacy of slavery and segregation.

Supporters of the amendment say the convention should strengthen its doctrinal statement, the Baptist Faith and Message, which states that the office of pastor “is limited to men as qualified by the Bible.”

Because Baptist churches are independent, the convention cannot tell them what to do or who to appoint as pastor.

But the convention can decide which churches are in and which are not. And even without a formal amendment, the Executive Committee has started telling churches with female pastors that they are out.